Hey everyone! It’s old buddy Ben here with another dope interview for your eyeballs to behold. Being a huge fan of The Umbrella Academy, I jumped at the chance to have a phone call Q&A with Steve Blackman, the showrunner of Netflix’s epic superhero series.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Netflix released the first season of The Umbrella Academy on February 15, 2019. The show quickly became one of the most-watched streaming series that year.
Isn’t it a Graphic Novel?
Why yes, bold section heading, you are correct. Written by Gerard Way (of My Chemical Romance fame) and illustrated by Gabriel Bá, The Umbrella Academy hit shelves in late 2007 as a six-issue limited series from Dark Horse. It promptly won an Eisner award in 2008. The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, a second six-issue series (or “Volume”), released in late 2008. After a brief hiatus, The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion, released in 2018.
With great success comes great responsibility. Budgetary restrictions and the challenge of transposing a story from comic cells to the screen resulted in a more toned-down, melancholy version of the Hargreeves family on Netflix. The next challenge came in upping the ante for season two. As you’ll read in my interview with Steve, they stepped it up to bring more of the wacky source material to the show’s sophomore season.
Blackman vs Kliewer: The Interview
WARNING: Contains Spoilers for The Umbrella Academy Season 2!!!
Ben Kliewer: Hi Steve! Thanks so much for joining me today.
Steve Blackman: Hey, good morning! How are you?
BK: I’m well, how are you doing?
SB: Very good thank you!
BK: So, first off, my wife and I binged through season two of Umbrella Academy this weekend.
BK: We really enjoyed it. We loved season one. In fact, my wife watched it three times through. She watched it once through without me, and then I watched it with her a second time, and then we watched it through again.
SB: Oh, I think your wife’s great, I think she’s a super smart woman. Please, keep watching!
BK: She is! Indeed she is. And we will definitely keep watching. Alright, let’s jump into the meat here. Congrats on season two, by the way, it was awesome we absolutely loved it.
SB: Thank you.
Music To His Ears
BK: Now, season one had this amazing soundtrack and that’s a trend that has continued into season two. How important is music selection to you and how do you go about picking the songs that you want?
SB: Well it’s huge for me. I mean, music’s a huge part of my life, and I see it as another character in the show. It’s something we do stylistically, you know. Obviously I’m influenced by Tarantino and, lots of filmmakers who use music extensively. But I do it a little differently. We don’t add the music after the fact, like other shows do, once we see the final product. I put the music into the script, I write the script with music in mind. I listen to songs that sort of inspire my writing, I encourage the writers to do the same.
So I know 90% of the music before we’ve ever shot a frame, and it sticks through the process. Sometimes we lose it because of clearance, and sometimes something doesn’t work. I have a great Music Supervisor, Jen Malone, who also works with me and really knows what she’s doing. So we pick some great music. We love the music. We love doing music in the show.
BK: It’s been amazing and we’ve really loved it. When you had Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now in the first season and the Hargreeves children have their dance scene… that was when we were like “Okay, this is pretty good, this is some pretty good music.” Then the Istanbul (Not Constantinople) scene in the donut shop with Number 5, that kicked it off for us. We absolutely loved that.
SB: Yeah, and what’s so great about that song is, it’s literally counter point. Like, one of the things we try to do is counter point songs that probably should not work on a scene of a 13 year old assassin, or 58 year old assassin in a 13 year old body, shooting up a bunch of assassins. But it works, and that’s what’s fun about music is, you know, you can find these wonderful counterbalances. Counter points. And they work great. Just like The Backstreet Boys works great over that fight sequence [in season two].
BK: From either season one or season two, were there any songs you wanted that you couldn’t get the rights to or otherwise didn’t end up working out?
SB: Yeah, there were a few. One we originally wanted was Miley Cyrus’ Backyard Sessions, a song called Jolene. A Dolly Parton (obviously) song.
SB: (Cont’d) And we just couldn’t get the clearance for it. But I had a place for it that would’ve been great. It was over the fight scene in the Mexican Consulate with Diego and the Swedes. That was supposed to be Jolene.
BK: Oh! Oh that would’ve been good.
SB: Her fast version of it. And that would’ve really worked well. We just couldn’t clear it with Miley’s people, unfortunately.
BK: And that’s a great version of that song, she does a great cover.
SB: Oh, the best! And sometimes you don’t get a reason, and that’s fine. We understand that sometimes they’re just not comfortable doing it. We just say “okay” and we move on.
Season One’s Surprise Success
BK: Did you expect season one to be such a success?
SB: Honestly, no. I knew I had something special. We had a special show. The cast was so wonderful, we were like family together the entire time. You hope it’s going to be a success. But then you’re like “Will the appeal to the broad enough?” That’s one of the key things that Netflix asked me to do when I first came on the project. They said “look, we want this to have broad appeal.”
There are certain shows in the superhero [genre] that are much darker. They have swearing and are R-rated. We weren’t allowed to do that. So it made it a little more difficult, in a way, to sort of tell stories. To sort of hide things and do double entendre. So it was a challenge, but I knew the characters were wonderful. I thought, if I love these characters and watching them, I thought other people would. But I was really pleasantly surprised to see it become a worldwide thing.
The, uh… the Source Material
BK: When working with such, for lack of a better word, wacky source material: what are some of the challenges of transposing that story line and those characters to the television screen?
SB: That’s a good question. It’s always a challenge because, at my starting point I wanted to be very respectful to the source material. It’s a springboard into the TV show. But what’s wonderful is that I have a great relationship with Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. And early on we realized that I couldn’t do a carbon copy of the graphic novel. It was just a lot of non-linear storytelling, there’s a lot of wild things that I couldn’t possibly financially afford to do. So, once we sort of agreed that these things could coexist and did not have to be the same thing, I had the freedom to do other things.
But I’m always still striving to find things from the graphic novel to put into the show, and have the fans of both mediums love it. For example, we had Agent Carmichael, who’s just a great character that’s from the graphic novel. Like, I had to do a fish in a bowl head this year, on top of a man. But some of the time we’re working the other way as well. So, they’re looking at the TV show and they’re changing the way they’re writing the graphic novel.
For example, they love how we do Ben [played by Justin H. Min]. So Ben doesn’t really exist in the graphic novel the way I put Ben in. So now I think they’re adjusting the graphic novel to bring Ben back. Which is amazing, because now you have these two mediums kind of colliding. And that’s the best type of collaboration, which is ideally what you want! I mean, I love that it’s going so well with these guys.
BK: Agent Carmichael is one character that I wanted to bring up because there is such craziness in the graphic novel. Were there some of those really out-there character that we almost saw in the show?
SB: (Chuckles) There were! There were a few other little bits and pieces that financially we just couldn’t pull off on our budget. But if there is a season 3, and we don’t have one picked up yet, but if we do I’m going to lean more into the weird and, sort of, the fun of that world. Our goal is to subvert expectation. Just when you think you know where this show is going, it throws you for a loop. And I think that’s why we’re different from everything else out there. Because really, at the heart, we’re a dysfunctional family show, right? That’s what the show is.
BK: Speaking of budget and producing within that. How much of a challenge, or what kind of an undertaking was it to recreate Dallas of the early 1960s?
SB: It was a very difficult undertaking, but we got lucky. The only thing we shot in Dallas was The Grassy Knoll where the Kennedy Assassination takes place. We were allowed to shoot there. It was very humbling to shoot there, by the way. We shot there for a couple days. But in a city north of Toronto, a place called Hamilton, it looks more like Dallas in the 1960s in some of their older streets than Dallas does now. Because we scouted Dallas and we couldn’t find a street that looked like 1960.
We found it in this place, in Hamilton. And the store owners were very nice and let us dress up the street. And we didn’t have to do a ton of VFX, it was all done practically by the art department and production design there to make it look like a 60s street. So we got really lucky. It was a lot of work but we got lucky. It also was complicated because this show takes place in November in Dallas and we were dealing with some brutal snow in Toronto. That was a constant challenge, so we had to hide that snow from you guys.
BK: In the final climax of the final episode we did deal with some snow there. Was that a happy accident, was that in the script already? Or did you have to work that out?
SB: We had to work that out. I won’t lie. There was not a plan to be snow. We shot half that sequence without any snow. The weather was supposed to be good. Our meteorologist we had on staff said “Nope, there’s gonna be no snow.” The next day there was four feet, when we had to turn the cameras the other way. So we had to creatively, in a story way, write in that snow. Which I thought worked out really well, But to be perfectly honest with you and the readers, we were surprised by that snow. That was unwanted snow! (Laughs)
BK: Well, it was pretty seamless on our end.
SB: Thank you!
Civil Rights and Super Heroes
BK: This season dives deep into themes of queer romance and racial justice. You obviously filmed this quite a while ago, what is it like seeing those themes reflecting the current social and political situation?
SB: It’s amazing. I mean, look, the truth is: we wrote and finished the script a year ago before the Black Lives Matter movement had sort of become so culturally relevant. But I knew I couldn’t go back into the 1960s with a woman of color, like the character of Allison, played by Emmy Raver-Lampman, and not talk about racial injustice. It was important and I knew that we wanted to do it. And ours is a tricky tone, because we do light things with our show, but this had to be done and we couldn’t glaze over this. It had to be a real story.
So, when we shot that scene, the riot, that was a very emotional night and day… two nights and days actually, for Emmy, for Yusuf Gatewood who plays Ray, for the rest of the cast and crew. Because it got very believable in there when the cameras were rolling. Also, to tell the story about what it would be like to have a queer love story with Sissy and Vanya, was also really touching. We did a ton of research on both civil rights and racial injustice as well as gay rights in the 60s, and there were none! Sissy risked losing her child and going to prison! So, it was important to tell these stories as real as possible.
BK: It was really impactful, particularly the scene where Allison tells Ray “We’re still fighting this 50 years from now” I’m a white guy, my wife is black and that really impacted us a lot, just to hear that in the context of talking to a man fighting for civil rights in the 60s. Telling him there’s progress, but we’re still fighting this fight 50 years from now. That really impacted us.
SB: Well, that’s great! Because, I think, even writing it, we knew… I mean, the scene where Allison and Ray are talking and he says “Let me get this right, there’s a black president?” But really, we’re saying “Yes we made progress” but clearly from the Black Lives movement we have a long, long way to go. So that’s part of the message, “we didn’t finish it,” you know? And, clearly, we didn’t finish it.
Tell Me The Future!
BK: At the end of season two, The Umbrella Academy comes back to an alternate present and encounters The Sparrow Academy, which also happens to be the title for Volume 4 of the comics, announced by Gerard Way last month. Would it suffice to say that you’ve had a sneak-peak at some of the upcoming story lines in the comics?
SB: Yes and no. I haven’t seen the comics, but I’m very close with Gerard and we talked a lot about things he wants to do, things I want to do. So I do have a sense of some things. He’s asked where I want to go, so we’re very good at sharing with each other. That’s why it’s a perfect collaboration.
BK: As soon as I heard the name Sparrow Academy, I thought of the last time we see Harlan in the back of his mother’s car, levitating what appears to be a toy bird in his hands. Perhaps that’s a toy sparrow? Is there any connection there?
SB: I cannot confirm or deny that.
BK: (Laughs) I love it! Now, I heard a rumor (wacka wacka) that there are allegedly nine volumes planned for The Umbrella Academy graphic novels. Now, assuming Netflix keeps giving you green lights, how many seasons do you have up your sleeve?
SB: Are you asking me how much does the show have? Or how many I have up my sleeve? Because they’re two different answers. I think the show could go for a very long time. I have an idea in my mind of the first three seasons. I’ve sort of thought it out, and I know what I want season three to be. I haven’t really thought beyond that.
But look, the truth is, I do love the show and the cast. If Netflix and the fans want us to do more, I would do more. I don’t know where the volumes are going in Gerard’s mind. I know he does want to write a lot more volumes. But I think as long as we can tell a really quality story and make the fans happy we can keep going. And at a certain point we may have to end before the graphic novel does, but we’ll see.
BK: Right, you don’t want to get into Walking Dead territory where the show has just kept going and going. I love The Walking Dead as much as the next guy, but the show has been going on for probably longer than it should have.
SB: I think sometimes you want to make a gracious exit. Especially, you want to be on top when you make an exit. You don’t want to get to the point where the fans are starting to get bored and going other places, or every day feel derivative. I’m not suggesting that’s The Walking Dead, I’m just saying for my own way, I don’t ever want to feel like the show is just sort of repackaging the same old wine in a new bottle.
But Dat Cast Tho
BK: I wanted to circle back and talk to you about the casting process. Casting Ellen, Tom, David, Emmy, Robert and Aidan… where did you find Aidan?! This kid’s awesome!
SB: The truth is, I went through hundreds and hundreds of kids. I mean, I couldn’t find this character. You think about what Aidan has to do, he had to sort of embody a curmudgeonly 58 year old former assassin, who’s grumpy, in the body of a 13 year old boy. I mean, it was a hell of a thing to ask of any kid. We started off with much younger kids, and we couldn’t find anyone who could do it.
And then here comes this kid Aidan who’d been on TV before, in front of a camera, but just had this gravitas, this presence. He asked me really smart questions, and he was totally prepared. He had this look in his eye of somebody who’d been through many more years of life than he has. And he’s just a professional. He always comes to set prepared. I mean, he’s smart, he’s sweet, I couldn’t get any luckier with that kid.
BK: I couldn’t help but notice that the town you shot in is called Hamilton. My wife and I saw Emmy Raver-Lampman play Angelica Schuyler in the show Hamilton on stage! Were there any jokes about Emmy being back in Hamilton?
SB: Ah! I think there were. I couldn’t bring myself to make that joke to her, but I’m sure the cast gave her a ribbing and probably made a few jokes about that. But I was lucky enough to see her in Hamilton in Los Angeles, and she was amazing.
BK: Apart from Aidan, when you’re looking at these characters did you see a lot of actors in these roles? Or did you have actors, like Ellen Page or Robert Sheehan who have extensive resumes, for example, in mind for the roles to being with?
SB: I had very clear ideas who I wanted for most of the roles. I knew I wanted Tom Hopper, I’d seen him in Game of Thrones. He was really a gentle giant which is what Luther is. I was so blown away that Ellen Page wanted to do the show, I imagined her as Vanya, but I didn’t think I could get her. I got on the phone with her and halfway through the conversation she said she was in.
I’m like “Really?! You want to do this?!” She’s like “Yeah, I love it!” I’m like “Done!” Obviously, with Robert Sheehan, I’d seen his work and I needed someone like Robert, and Robert really embodied his character. Now you can’t imagine anyone else. With the rest of the cast, I knew Emmy from Hamilton, but I didn’t know that she was doing TV. When I found out she was, we reached out to her. You know, Justin [Min, who played Ben Hargreeves]… I mean, we really got a lot of the people we wanted. It wasn’t a long complicated casting process for most of them.
I felt very fortunate I got the picks I wanted. Nobody wants to say you settled for someone, I really got the actors I wanted. Including this new character, Ritu Arya who plays Lila is somebody I discovered and I think she’s amazing.
BK: Right, my wife and I were talking, I think she was on Doctor Who last season.
SB: Yeah, I think she’s done Doctor Who and I think she might’ve done a Sherlock as well.
Showing Off Your Picks
BK: Because we had season one, we cared so much more about the characters going into season two, and the characters really got to blossom. My personal favorite, Tom’s character Luther, really got to expand a lot in season two. They all did, really. Diego and Luther blossomed a lot and they got to be goofier in season two. Which showed a lot more of their acting chops.
SB: Yeah, I mean I feel I sort of maybe underused Tom in season one. Not intentionally. So I really wanted to make Tom stand out a little more this year and show his range as an actor. Because I think, for example, in the scene where he goes to see Vanya for the first time, like, you’re expecting him to shoot her. What you don’t expect is him to say “I’m really sorry. Whatever reason you’re here, I just want you to know, if I had a part in it, I’m sorry.” That, to me, is a wonderful show of what the range of Tom Hopper is. Plus he can do the sense of humor really, really well.
BK: Talk a little bit about the casting process behind Reginald Hargreeves with Colm Feore. That’s such a specific and niche kind of “Character Actor” character. Did it take a long time to find him?
SB: No. I mean, Colm was one of those people we had on our top two or three list, at the very top. I’d known him as a Stratford Actor, I’d known him for doing many, many movies. He’s someone, when I first thought of Hargreeves, I wrote his name on a list and said “this guy would be great.” Colm is so good at doing accents and voices and he had that look that he could play that stern dad really well. So we went right out to Colm Feore and said “please do this for us” and we were lucky enough to get him!
Apes and Fish-men and Nukes, Oh My!
BK: I had the pleasure to interview Chris White and Aidan Martin, a Visual Effects Supervisor and Animation Supervisor from Weta, a few weeks ago. They worked on the animation of Pogo for season one and season two. Did you work with them at all?
SB: I work with Weta, but it’s all through Visual Effects, so I don’t really meet with the individuals, my VFX Supervisor does. But I’m in love with the work that Weta does. Their Pogo this year was just extraordinary. Young Pogo. They did Agent Carmichael, which was so much detail to get that right. I don’t think people have any idea that they modeled fish scales and they looked at water dynamics and flow to get that right.
BK: Incredible. I was really happy to see you bring Agent Carmichael and some of that weirdness of the graphic novel universe into the show. It’s wild stuff.
SB: It is wild stuff, but you know, Gerard and Gabriel are really creative guys.
BK: One final question: Are you now, or have you ever been, a fan of the band My Chemical Romance?
SB: Yes, I was and I still am. I love it, I couldn’t believe that Gerard wrote the graphic novel. But, yeah I still love them. I know they were primed to go on a new tour, and then COVID knocked them down. But I’m definitely going to find one of those places when they open up again. I’ll be at one of those venues listening to them rock!
BK: Steve, thank you so much for talking me today, you’ve been really gracious with your time. Stay safe and have a wonderful day!
SB: Thank you! I really enjoyed our conversation, you take care as well.
The Umbrella Academy seasons one and two are available to stream on Netflix!